Presiding over a stuttering economy and (slowly but surely) aging and dying population, with smoldering under the ashes societal issues that looked to be threatening his throne, Vladimir Vladimirovich has found a trump card that raised his popularity to unimaginable height. Western media went slack-jawed at the wondrous show of support. That card was, of course, his swift Anschluss-style annexation of Crimea. A typical sentence from a USA press:
Russian President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Ukraine's breakaway republic of Crimea has stunned the international community, but support for his actions in Russia suggest there is certain logic to what he is doing that no amount of sanctions or threats of isolation will overturn: bolstering popularity back home.
Indeed, the skillful use of cheap patriotism by Vladimir Vladimirovich caused an unprecedented wave of nationalistic enthusiasm.
The mood in Moscow on Tuesday was supportive of the annexation, with Russian flags hanging out of windows and strangers congratulating each other on what they referred to as a "holiday."At the moment this wave seems to be overwhelming and drowning any dissenting voices. Journalists that dare voice a contrary opinion on the latest "liberation" move are ostracized, denigrated and even threatened physically in some cases. The ultra-nationalistic movements, hitherto quietly restrained, their activities curbed, are ruling the streets. Protesters are being dealt with swiftly and forcefully.
And, of course, the media outlets that don't toe the line, are getting a swift and merciless punishment, as it could be seen in this clip (by Al Jazeera, sorry to say):
Everyone is asking nowadays what will be the next move of the "liberator". And where does he plan to stop (seeing as the Western token protest and feeble economic measures don't seem to impact his plans)?
As for the first question, the most likely target to join Russia is the tiny de facto "sovereign state" of Pridnestrovie(Transnistria), that has broken away from the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova in 1990 and exists only thanks to not very generous Russian assistance and more generous Russian military presence. Having a high percentage of ethnic Russians, Pridnestrovie has already overwhelmingly voted to join mother Russia several years ago, but so far their entreaties weren't met by a warm embrace from Moscow. It may change now, with Putin being quite happy with the first empire expansion step. Of course, being a consummate politico, Putin will try to time this next step according to his best interests. Such as a serious drop in the polls, when the sobered Russians discover the economic damage caused by the Crimean adventure...
Regarding the second question - re further Putin's expansionist plans - my guess will be that they are limited and are not really meant to recreate the Russian empire or the Soviet Union in its past geographic glory. Putin would rather chip off a few bits and pieces here and there, skillfully using each piece to promote his own internal popularity and in no way is he going to go far enough to change the pattern of Western anemic protests and chance a real confrontation. Not that he has to worry too much about the latter, as the things look at the moment.
As for the Russian people: their chauvinistic ecstasy is a bitter surprise. Obviously it takes more than just puny twenty years to instill democracy in a nation that never knew democracy at all. And, with apologies to my reader, I just have to do it. Follows a very relevant quote from a person who started it all. Enjoy.
"...Никто не повинен в том, что он родился рабом; но раб, который не только чуждается стремлений к своей свободе, но оправдывает и приукрашивает свое рабство (например, называет удушение Польши, Украины и т. д. «защитой отечества» великороссов), такой раб есть вызывающий законное чувство негодования, презрения и омерзения холуй и хам..."
В. И. Ленин, "О национальной гордости великороссов"
ПСС, том 26, стр. 106-108
"... No one is to blame for the fact that he was born a slave, but a slave who not only eschews a striving for freedom, but justifies and embellishes his slavery (for example, calls the strangulation of Poland, Ukraine, etc. "defense of the fatherland ")*, such a slave is a flunky and a boor that deserves a legitimate feeling of indignation, contempt and disgust... "
V.I. Lenin, "On the National Pride of the Great Russians"
Collected Works, Volume 26, pages 106-108
(*) Interestingly, the quote used here appears in many Internet sources, however the mention of Poland and Ukraine is missing in many of the quotations...
Update: Just received this via email (thanks to L.G.):